A hair brushing mystery

La Coiffure

Following spending this weekend in London I had an hour or so to kill before getting a train back to Leeds. Finding myself in Trafalgar Square I decided to pass through the National Gallery before finding a bus (or two as it turned out), to the station, (my love of London bus journeys perhaps being a suitable topic for another blog post).

My main aim upon entering the gallery was to see ‘La Coiffure’ (Combing the Hair) by Degas. Painted in roughly 1896 it is one of my favourite pieces of art.

On one level it is simply a beautiful painting. Large and bright, it was completed using a palette of mainly orange, red, yellow, black, white and blue. The colours create a work that initially presents as sumptuous and comforting. It depicts a scene of a heavily pregnant woman having her hair brushed by her servant as she leans back in a pose of ecstatic pleasure.

It is a rich and fulfilling delight of a painting.

Or is it?

On closer and second inspection other possibilities begin to present themselves to me.

Encroaching upon the left of the painting is a red piece of fabric. But the rest of the interior is mainly obscure. Is it a richly decorated room or could the colour and overall interior hint at poverty? Both the women have red hair. Could they be sisters or perhaps fellow workers? Maybe the seated woman is still being forced to work despite being heavily pregnant and the other woman is helping her to relax now they are finished, not even removing her uniform after work before suggesting she brushes her hair.

If the original narrative is correct how is the woman feeling? Why is she revelling so much in having her hair brushed? Is it just pure sensation? Has she got a horrible husband or family? Has she been under pressure all day and is now finding a brief moment of physical release in a life she despises?

It is a snapshot and I remain tantalised at all the possibilities in the scene.

Unfortunately ‘La Coiffure’ is not on display at the moment…another reason to go back to London soon.

Image credit: Thanks to the National Gallery for allowing me to use an image of this painting. Please contact the National Gallery for permission to download and reproduce this image: http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/image-download-terms-of-use?img=n-4865-00-000035-wz-pyr.tif&invno=NG4865

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